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Lessons from the past for a man building the Saudi future

With the Middle East in a state of flux and old alliances reshaping and reforming, the challenge facing Saudi Arabia’s crown prince may seem daunting. But there are lessons from the past he can draw on, most notably those offered by two of the greatest figures of the 20th century.

In 1921, King Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud, known as Ibn Saud, the founder and first king of today’s Saudi Arabia, first encountered Winston Churchill in Cairo.

It was a meeting between two visionaries who were destined to leave a more significant mark than anyone on the histories of their countries.

The meeting had been arranged by St. John Philby, father of the traitor Kim. The elder Philby was an Orientalist and British agent who had been sent to Arabia in 1920 to “assist” King Abdul Aziz.

Churchill was Britain’s newly appointed colonial secretary, dispatched by Prime Minister Lloyd George to chair the Cairo Conference on the future shape of the Middle East. Among his advisers was another noted Orientalist, Thomas Edward Shaw, also known as John Hume Ross, but better known as T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia.

From the closely guarded conference venue in the Semiramis Hotel, Churchill ventured forth for his meeting with King Abdul Aziz, then aged 46.

King Abdul Aziz had already consolidated his hold over Arabia from his beginnings as the Sultan of Najd and King of the Hejaz. But there were border disputes with all his neighbors, and he turned to Churchill for advice.

Churchill encouraged King Abdul Aziz to secure his new territories. In 1925, Saudis became the rulers of Makkah and Madinah. Britain by now was paying King Abdul Aziz an annual subsidy of £60,000, the equivalent of just over $1 million today. In those days it was two-thirds of the Kingdom’s annual income.

In 1932, King Abdul Aziz gave his surname to the lands he ruled, and Saudi Arabia was born.

King Abdul Aziz and Winston Churchill shared a number of great qualities. Each had the charisma and imagination to question the received wisdom of the time, to take on those who had a more narrow vision of the future and to stand up for what they believed — and the force of personality to see it through.

How two men Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman admires — his grandfather, King Abdul Aziz, and the British statesman Winston Churchill — met a century ago to plan the ‘new’ Middle East.

Eric Morris

King Abdul Aziz consolidated his hold on the Arabian Peninsula and sought to unite the tribes under one national flag. He fulfilled his dream by amassing vast oil wealth and was protected from external threats by the US.

The next in line to the Saudi throne is now Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the grandson of King Abdul Aziz. This charismatic 32-year-old crown prince has enjoyed a remarkable ascent in just over five years. What sort of ruler will he be?

Like his grandfather, who was an emir, a sultan and then a king from 1902 until 1953, Crown Prince Mohammed could be king for a long time. Like his grandfather and Churchill, for whom he has expressed great admiration, he is a man of bold vision and prodigious energy, and is not deterred by the need to address unpalatable issues.

Like his grandfather, he intends to embark on a bold path to create a new order in the Middle East with his country as the de facto regional power. Unlike his grandfather, he does not envisage a future based on oil or a Middle East controlled by Washington.

Like his grandfather, for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a close relationship with the US and UK is important. Even in this short period, with Donald Trump he has assiduously rebuilt the Kingdom’s special relationship with the White House, which had languished under Barack Obama’s presidency. While the conflict has dragged on in Yemen, the crown prince has recognized the need to take a proactive approach to regional challenges — notably Iran. He has reached out to Iraq and has attempted to put an end to Qatar’s mischief-making in the region.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 is the most ambitious socio-economic reform in the Kingdom’s history. It will wean the Kingdom off its oil dependency and its people from the life of a rentier state.

King Abdul Aziz built his country on the wealth generated by Aramco. His grandson intends to invest some of that wealth to make Saudi Arabia a 21st-century economic powerhouse.

Eric Morris is the author of “Churchill’s Private Armies” and a former deputy director of studies at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.